Meryem Saci / “My identity is more complex than being Arab”

Algerian Canadian singer-songwriter and hip-hop artist Meryem Saci talks rap, identity and how music saved her life

by Omar Saleem

Entertainment 16 April 2018

It’s hard not to notice Meryem Saci. I first came across her rapping on the track Rap N’ Roll by Nomadic Massive. In the music video, she plays a modestly dressed, bored receptionist who starts the song with a furious rap by the water cooler. Meryem commands attention not only through her lyrics and energy but through the velvety and nuanced power of her voice. A quick Google search revealed that Meryem can sing. I’m not saying she can only hold a tune, no, Meryem can sing. I think the more appropriate term would be Meryem can saaaang.

Meryem is an Algerian, Montreal based singer-songwriter and hip-hop artist. She and her mother were forced to flee Algeria to escape civil war and immigrated as political refugees to Canada when she was 13. Music has always been part of her life and she’s been developing her sound over the last few years which we would describe as global pan Africa with a strong does of hip-hop. If you listen to her single On My Way (video below) it really brings the description we gave  a real sound and spirit.

The Arab Edition managed to catch Meryem between competing on The Voice (France), creating her own music and working with the group Nomadic Massive to discuss how music saved her life, hip-hop in the Arab world and fleeing the Algerian civil war.

How did you first get into performing music? Were you singing from a young age?
From very young I knew I wanted to be a singer and everything was geared towards that. I started singing as early as I was able to speak. I used to love mimicking what I would hear and I’d ask my mum if I can sing myself to sleep!

How would you explain what your musical sound is?
In the project On My Way, I dubbed a mixtape because it has a variety of sounds that influenced me strongly – hip-hop, R&B, soul, pop, Afrobeat, reggae. However, moving forward there is a bit more of a fusion between the sounds from Algeria and different parts of Africa and my western influences.

How would you describe hip-hop’s relationship to the Arab world?
Hip-hop is a culture first and foremost, it portrays the power of art in movements of resistance and education, it particularly represents the voice of the people. When it comes to the Arab world’s growing relationship with hip-hop, it’s a beautiful thing, one of the best things to be added to the culture. Hip-hop is universal in essence, it gives an outlet for those lacking the power or the means to make the change they want to make or claim the identity they fight for or even the mere right to exist and to be heard.

And how does that relationship extend with your own Arab identity?
My identity is more complex than being Arab. I am culturally Arab and Maghrebi, I am ethnically mostly Berber. I identify as Maghrebi or North-African. I do believe our history and our identity is particular to our locations and what we share through our geo-politics. It would too reductive to place it all under one umbrella. However, coming from my background and living the different experience my journey provided, rap is a powerful tool, a therapy and a strong statement. It’s unconventional for a woman to speak her mind, share her truth and claim individuality and sovereignty on any sphere of life, especially not the mic, but I would definitely never claim to be conventional. So, hip-hop is truly where I feel most at home.

Music has been a stellar companion and teacher in my life. A therapy and a motivation, a challenge and a blessing.

You and your mother fled Algeria during the civil war and came to Canada as political refugees. Do you mind telling us in some more detail about that experience?
My mother and I fled the country when I was 13 and a half. We were able to get a visa for France with the help of some friends of my mother that were able to guarantee her access to France. Considering in Algeria, children are the father’s possession, even with my mother’s custody I needed the father parent’s authorization to travel. My father had abandoned us and stopped the process of bringing us to Canada through family sponsoring. So, I had to practice signing like him, which I got very good at. I had to also practice speaking French like a Parisian for my new identity. One of the challenges was that the fake French passport made a mistake with my age and made me out to be 3 years younger, so I had to look like a 10-11-year-old. It was a real challenge but we made it. The reason we had to go about it the illegal way was that we tried every other way to get a visa or residency for Canada and the States and we kept getting refused. Our situation in Algeria became more and more dangerous and very difficult to maintain and so my mother decided by any means necessary we would flee and not perish during the war. Looking back at it, I am very honored to be my mother’s child, for her devotion, courage, and vision. She is the reason I can have this exchange with you today.

How did you find the cultural shock from living in Algeria and then living in Canada?
It was very drastic, from the weather, there is nothing in my DNA that is willing to conform to Canadian winters. Beyond the cold, culturally speaking it was night and day, people were more individualistic, cold and independent. Overall, I had a rough transition period but thanks to music I was able to connect with the right people that shaped a wonderful journey.

How do you think this life changing experience affected your relationship with Algeria?
It definitely made me more aware of identity and history to be uprooted from home. I developed a lot of nostalgia. It led me to do research and to seek more traditional music and meals to bring back a taste of my culture back in my life. I miss it. I am deeply connected with it and happy to claim It as my heritage but I’m happy to be able to appreciate it from far because living there would be unrealistic but I’m hopeful to develop project in Algeria.

Listen Meryem Saci’s On My Way

Can you tell us about your mix tape On My Way?
On My Way is my first solo project. After releasing it seven months ago I’ve had the pleasure to perform it a few times namely twice at the Montreal Jazz Festival. It’s a collection of songs that shaped the period I was in while making the project. Sonically it covers a few influences that shape my sound. It’s available on iTunes, Bandcamp, Soundcloud or my website.

Tell us about Nomadic Massive. What are they all about? How did you connect with them?
Nomadic Massive is a live hip-hop band with world music tendencies! We are four to five on the mic in five languages. The sound is a fusion of hip-hop, Afrobeat and Jazz. I was 18 when I met them and was connected to them through a friend who told they may be needing a singer soon. I went to a rehearsal and started jamming with them, after a few shows I asked if I can become a member, the rest is history! 

Tell us about Rap N’ Roll
Rap N’ Roll is the latest video we dropped, the single is from our last album Big Band Theory. We had a lot of fun making the video, especially because it reflects many of our current realities. We all have side hustles and keep managing to push the music. The beat is a strong rock guitar sample with heavy hip-hop drums, produced by Waahli from the band.

How did you develop your rapping technique?
It was with my first crew that I tapped into rapping for a posse track that demanded even singers to rap. I really liked it and felt I had something to explore there. It wasn’t until I went Brazil and lost my voice in 2008 that I resorted to rapping and took it more seriously after. The original crew I was with Royal Peasants were my main reference when it came to technique and my knowledge of the culture. Afterwards it was by working with Nomadic Massive and discovering the difference between studio and live performance that I developed my own techniques along the way.

You’ve said before that music saved your life. Can you elaborate on that?
Music has been a stellar companion and teacher in my life. A therapy and a motivation, a challenge and a blessing. It paved my way up until now on this very exchange with The Arab Edition. When we came as refugees to Canada, we had to go through a trial to know if we will be accepted or deported. When it wasn’t looking good with the prosecutor and the required proofs to help our case, I asked to speak and in my speech, I asked if I could sing… which I did. The rest is history and here we are citizens today.

Do you think music can change the world?
Absolutely. I strongly believe in energy and the power of music is universal and undeniable. It’s one of the strongest tools we have to connect, convey a message and elevate together. We can heal, teach and unite through music. Music is my form of expression, it’s personal and real. There are many messages that I would like to communicate through my music. I’m hoping people are moved. One thing is for sure, authenticity, love and gratitude tend to be common denominators in my music.

Listen to Nomadic Massive’s Rap N’ Roll

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